- Michael Jai White wanted to create a trilogy of movies set in different time periods, with Outlaw Johnny Black as a Western homage.
- The cast of Outlaw Johnny Black is exceptional, and their performances brought the characters to life.
- The movie combines comedy with social commentary, and the messages have resonated with audiences in test screenings.
In Outlaw Johnny Black, the titular character has vowed to avenge his father’s death by killing Brett Clayton. However, in the process, he becomes a wanted man. Posing as Reverend Fairman to stay below the radar, he ends up in a small mining town that has been taken over by the notorious Land Baron.
Michael Jai White is the star and director of Outlaw Johnny Black. He also co-wrote the movie with co-star Byron Minns. Outlaw Johnny Black also stars Anika Noni Rose, Erica Ash, Kym Whitley, Kevin Chapman, Glynn Turman, and Barry Bostwick. White and Minns are also producers on the movie, along with Donovan de Boer and executive producers Matthew Grant Godbey and Herb Kimble.
Star and director Michael Jai White discusses his new movie, Outlaw Johnny Black. He explained what inspired the Western and praised his incredible cast. White also discusses whd he enjoys wearing multiple hats as an actor, producer, and director while working on a movie, as well as teasing a martial arts project he has in the pipeline. Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, and the movie covered here secured an interim agreement to proceed with promotions.
Michael Jai White Talks Outlaw Johnny Black
Screen Rant: Listen, I love Black Dynamite, but Outlaw Johnny Black is next level. It is so good. I used to watch a lot of Westerns with my dad growing up, like Buck And The Preacher starring Harry Belafonte and directed by Sidney Poitier. It gives me those type of vibes. Can you talk to me about where the idea came from?
Michael Jai White: Well, we had the idea a while back when I was doing Black Dynamite. I always wanted to do three movies that were set in that time period, one being Black Dynamite, the second being this one, the Western that harken back to that Buck and the Preacher, Take a Hard Ride, and then something that just did homage to the Western genre altogether. And then the third was a horror movie, kind of like Blackula, that type of thing.
Your cast is phenomenal on this. Can you talk to me about what they brought to their roles that wasn’t necessarily on the page? Anika Noni Rose, Erica Ash, Byron Minns, they’re excellent in this film.
Michael Jai White: I feel like I cheated. I had these amazing human beings in this movie, and you just add water and there you got it. And they just brought these things to life because they’re extraordinary, exceptional people. And so I benefited and the audience has benefited from just seeing what they were able to do.
I loved Black Dynamite, but Outlaw Johnny Black has a lot of substance in it. It’s not just surface-level comedy. Can you talk about the decision on social commentary in this movie?
Michael Jai White: Well, absolutely. I don’t fall in love with my own stuff. I wrote this and I wanted these messages to be clear. I know that it’s a comedy, but I try to basically interweave good storytelling and some messaging, and I let it happen and see what occurs. And people who have seen it have come away with the messages that I intended for them to get.
And much to my surprise, because I mean, sometimes you make the attempt and it may go over people’s heads, but I’ve been very, very happy about the responses that’s been happening from this movie. Especially, I’ve had several test screenings and there’ve been absolute… One screening had five audience applause breaks. I didn’t expect that. So it’s been great.
Can you talk to me about your approach with the dual role of directing and starring in Outlaw Johnny Black and what unique challenges it presented? Because I know this isn’t your first time directing and starring in something.
Michael Jai White: Yeah, it’s quite natural to me, to be honest with you. Sometimes it’s harder… I might do an action movie and say I’m the hired actor, and it’s hard for me to turn off my directing and producing brain. So I’ll be in my trailer in a movie that I’m just an actor in, and I’ll be sitting there going, did they think about the lighting on this side?
Because if the sun’s going to go down, they better get this shot out of the way first, and I’ll run out of my trailer. “Hey guys, have you thought of…” “Oh, thanks Mike.” And I’ll sit back and I’ll be like, oh, wait a second. This has changed, so we need… I can’t turn that stuff off. So when I’m directing, it’s just organic for me because I’m used to multitasking and I enjoy the problem solving thing. Juggling, that’s normal for me. It’s not even stressful. I absolutely enjoy it, so it feels good being able to do this.
To piggyback off that question, as an accomplished martial artist and actor, how did your background influence your directorial decisions in terms of action sequences and fight choreography? ‘Cause we get a great opening scene where you’re doing some martial arts to a bunch of we’ll say bullies that are harassing somebody, and it’s a phenomenal scene. But how do you approach that?
Michael Jai White: I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I’m like, do we have time to shoot the action thing? Okay. And I’m creating it on the way to the set. I’ve done it so many times. And so I’ll say, “Here’s the count, guys. I want you to do this. You to do this.” They don’t know what’s going on. I’ve already cut the thing in my head.
It’s unusually easy for me to do. And so say there’s a point where I’m kicking four times with the same leg. That seems complicated, but… I’ll say, “This is my timing. One, two, three, four. You’re going to get hit on one. You get hit on two. Remember, this is the cadence. All right, action.” One, two, three, four, done. You know what I mean? So because I’m used to the angle and being that I’ve done a lot of fighting, somebody could move to the wrong place, but I’ll know the angle because I can see the camera. So I’ll adjust the angle to the person that I’m doing the fight with. So it’s really easy for me to do that stuff.
That was exactly the scene I was talking about. That kick was amazing, that one, two, one, two, kick. Oh, it was brilliant.
Michael Jai White: Yeah, because I can go… ‘Cause they’re never going to be in the same place. I go, “The camera’s there. Well, my foot has to be right here to make it look…” I’ll put my foot right at that point that looks like contact. I feel like I’m cheating. I do it all the time. That part, the action part I know I’m going to take care of. And so I’ll focus on the other things, the other movie-making parts, and dealing with the lighting and everything else. So that’s really how that goes.
I’m so familiar with seeing you as an ass kicker in some of these superhero and martial arts films that I almost forget that you’re so brilliant at comedy. Can you talk to me about your adventures in really figuring out your comedic sense and your comedic tone while writing Black Dynamite and this?
Michael Jai White: Yeah. Well, for me, even if I’m doing a drama, believe me, it’s me quieting my comic stuff. People don’t believe it because I look like this. I have the male RBF, but there’s always funny stuff… It is hard for me to be serious. My daughter’s 15th birthday’s today, and I have one who’s turning 14, and they’ve said that they’ve never seen me angry. So people would be surprised about that. And my house is like a sitcom where humor is following me my entire life.
I’m a child of Monty Python. I grew up with that and Peter Sellers. That’s the stuff that I watch all the… So it’s this weird thing that people would define me as this ass kicker when I’m so silly in reality. So this just allows me to flex really what I am, doing an action comedy like Black Dynamite and Outlaw Johnny Black. This is my natural inclination. So I’m not bound by some kind of serious, mindless, ass kicking robot type of character.
Can you share any interesting memories or behind-the-scenes stories from making Outlaw Johnny Black? Because essentially, one thing that we don’t see a ton made anymore are spaghetti westerns. So what were some of the things you learned while making a Western?
Michael Jai White: Well, I mean, I learned first of all, that I can do a Western, but the thing is, sometimes it’s really about casting the right people. I think a lot of people, they’ve done westerns wrong in the past. They’ve failed a number of attempts because when you are doing a Western, you’re holding up a level that back when they did westerns, people were made of some really serious stuff.
The Charles Bronsons, you name them, just going down the line, Lee Van Cleefs, and all the… These people just oozed personality. And they were tough. They’ve lived through something. And a lot of people nowadays, you can’t cast a kid that just felt like he stepped out of Starbucks, some actor, and then ask them to be brought in a western setting. He’s held up against another standard.
Sure. There has to be a little grit on it.
Michael Jai White: Yeah. So for me, I love the genre and I feel like I know what works in it. We’ve had some really great westerns. Old Henry, Unforgiven. When it’s done right, it’s probably my favorite genre.
I couldn’t agree with you more. I grew up watching Westerns with my dad. He was really big into, oh man, you name it, Shame, Gunsmoke, all sorts of Westerns that we watched together growing up. So I agree with you, Unforgiven. Once you do it right, it is a perfect lost art, I feel like, which you captured a lot with Outlaw Johnny Black. Now, what attracted you to tell this story and did you always know that this was the cast that you wanted to have in it? And by the way, there are a ton of cameos in this film that if you blink, you’d miss it, but like, oh my gosh, you got everybody in this movie.
Michael Jai White: Yeah. When it comes down to it, I mean, the script brought a lot of people in, too. And also I think it’s because they have respect. They respect how I move and what I stand for. But primarily, people read things that they really responded to and really good actors, it’s not a matter of money. It’s a matter of them doing something that they believe in and a matter of quality. So I got those people to come out to lend their services.
And I tell you, there were a few that… Do you know Sam Jackson was going to do a role in this? But he had a back surgery, but was still willing to come to set. Still willing to come to set, but out of our friendship and out of just what’s right, I didn’t want that man that I respect so much to go through pain, even though he was willing to do this cameo. It’s like, you have somebody like that, that’s my hero. And I got some other heroes in there too. But yeah, I was very happy that people responded to that.
And I was super happy that even the grips and electric, people who normally don’t care about what’s going on in the script, they were requesting scripts because they were so engaged and found themselves really into what we were doing. Because, yeah, I wrote this… It’s based off of Black Wall Street originally, Greenwood, before it became Tulsa. And the tragedy that happened there was not unlike several that happened around the country at that time.
So I bring light to those type of things, but historically, but I do a different spin on it, of course, and then try to weave a story that has something to say. It’s kind of a story about redemption and forgiveness, but disguised as a revenge film. So I feel the Western genre is the best one to set up that magic trick to be like, okay, yeah, you’re getting ready for a revenge film, quite naturally. Sorry about that.
It is set up as a revenge film, but there’s so many layers to it once you’re in there and you get so much out of it. Can you talk to me about balancing the comedy element of Outlaw Johnny Black with the action and drama, ensuring a cohesive, engaging experience for the audience?
Michael Jai White: Well, it’s a delicate balance, but it’s not one that hasn’t been done in the past with the movies that I grew up on like Buck and the Preacher and Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again, A Piece of the Action. These movies, this is the tone that I was setting out to do. I wanted to give for a younger audience and an older audience, my age and older, I wanted them to revisit that feeling. Because for me, there was nothing like it, so I wanted to bring that back.
But yeah, there’s this delicate balance of nobody wants to be preached to. So it’s about presenting it in such a way where you entertain them and then you blindside them with some messaging, some knowledge, and then you go, “Okay, we got that? Now let’s laugh again,” and keep on going. I think Tyler Perry is one example of that. People could joke about this big man in a dress playing a grandma, but what is that grandma saying? That grandma was saying some of the most impactful stuff that anybody said in decades. And so that’s what you want. You want to have that alchemy.
Absolutely. Now, I know that you love the Western genre. What were some of the key lessons or insights you gained from directing Outlaw Johnny Black, and did it change your perspective on filmmaking in any way?
Michael Jai White: Well, for me, it’s just about, hey, I’m going to do my best, and if it works, great. And I’m just so happy that the messages are coming through loud and clear. As I continue to speak about it, I’m speaking from the exiting folks who saw the movie, and everybody keeps saying, “You know what? I’ve never seen a movie like this.” And I’m like, wow.
And when people keep saying that, that becomes a narrative. I go, whoa. I have no expectations, but when people are telling me, “I’ve never seen a movie like this. I’ve never seen a movie like this,” this has impacted me this way. And one of the things that really was dear to my heart, one of the first screenings I had, a producer friend left and called me the next day.
He says, “Man, I want to thank you for that movie.” I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “Watching your movie made me contact my mother. I hadn’t spoken to my mom in eight years, but after seeing your movie, I called her and we’re getting together.” And I’m like, wow, if I could do that with a movie… Hey, I didn’t expect that.
Michael Jai White: So these are the things. I do my best to put it out there. I raise my child the best way I can and then it has to fly on its own. And so that child is kind of making me proud.
How do you approach the process of bringing a character like Johnny Black to life in front of the camera and behind it?
Michael Jai White: Well, it starts with me. I wrote it and so I’m writing from my perspective. I’m still that guy, Ferrante Jones, that starred in Black Dynamite. So it’s like the true lead is the writer, if you can get what I’m saying.
This writer who’s writing this movie circa 1971 and is coloring things from that lens. That’s what it is. It is got to be authentic to that voice. If it’s authentic to that voice, you’re going to be fine. So you’re not playing the joke as a joke. You’re playing it for the reality. And so you have to just… There’s different things that you got to weave. There’s incident level. You got to raise that because you have a shorter attention span audience nowadays. So that’s another thing that you got to dial that up a little bit. But it’s absolutely fun.
It looked like you’re having such a fun time making this.
Michael Jai White: It’s absolutely a fun process creating it.
Right. Now, I love Gigantic Studios. I love what you guys are doing and creating. What’s next? And what are some of the challenges that you want to put in front of yourself as a director? I mean, you’ve done the Blaxploitation 70s film before. You’ve done Outlaw Johnny Black. What’s next on your guys’ agenda?
Michael Jai White: Well, I’ve got some action things in the comedy and action realm. There’s something that… I can talk a little bit about it, The Black Dragon, which is more of a martial arts centric character. It’s badass, but a fun thing. I’m about to direct another movie called Trouble Man, and got some really cool things. I mean some really cool things down the pike. It’s just about continuing forward and doing these movies independently, doing them the right way, and really serving my audience. So that’s what I’m excited about, and I get a chance to do it.
Michael, you have such a great eye as a director, and like you said, it does seem to come pretty natural to you. Is there any old school IPs that you’d like to sink your teeth into? Something like a, I don’t know, Big Trouble In Little China or something like that, that you’d want to direct?
Michael Jai White: Yeah, there’s something called Into the Dragon that I think I have a take on that that would be killer. And I nearly sold it to… Oh God, what’s his name? He loved the pitch. Joel Silver, years back. But things got mixed up and we lost contact or whatever. But he was super excited about it. So you might make me give him a call and see if we can get that resurrected.
But yeah, so there’s a number of movies that I would love to take on. Eventually, I’d love to be eventually behind the camera, producing these movies, and putting them out the way I can. But right now, I have the lampshade on my head and I got to be the lead guy, but I want to create a railroad of new Michael Jai Whites, new action stars that I can be behind so eventually I can take a step behind the scenes a bit more.
About Outlaw Johnny Black
Hell bent on avenging the death of his father, Johnny Black vows to gun down Brett Clayton and becomes a wanted man in the process while posing as a preacher in a small mining town that’s been taken over by a notorious Land Baron.
Outlaw Johnny Black will hit theaters on September 15.
Source: Screen Rant Plus